By Shelley D. Harper
Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.
When Cisco made a commitment in 2020 to address injustice within the African-American/Black (AA/Black) community, the company backed it up with 12 actions inspired by core beliefs around social justice. Collectively, the 12 Social Justice Actions, ranging from influencing ecosystems to impacting communities, establish a set of enterprise operational standards, which include addressing injustice and inequity, and promoting human rights and full spectrum diversity.
Among them, Social Justice Action 2 is designed to increase AA/Black representation at every level of the company. To oversee its implementation, Cisco entrusted Aleta Howell, Cisco Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead, with developing a strategy and leading a team to execute it. Under her leadership, AA/Black representation in non-executive positions has already increased 11 percent in year one.
In a recent interview, Aleta talked about her role at Cisco, why Action 2 is succeeding, and how Cisco is reaching untapped AA/Black talent through the OneTen coalition.
How did your career path lead to working at Cisco, and what does your role as the Action 2 lead entail?
Aleta: After earning my MBA, I spent most of my career in marketing and advertising before becoming the director of MBA admissions at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There I developed an interest in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space. I spent the next few years working at a number of agencies in brand strategy and consulting, and eventually launched my own company, which also focused on strategic planning and communications.
I joined Cisco in 2012 in learning and development, and later the Office of Inclusion as a program manager. Since 2016, I have served as the lead for diversity and inclusive recruiting and have led the Cisco Global Inclusive Recruiting and Business Strategy team. In this role, I work with leaders and their teams to align corporate and functional diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies, and to create internal and external programs and initiatives that drive diverse and inclusive hiring.
I also serve as the lead for Social Justice Action 2, which aims to increase representation of AA/Black talent from entry level to senior manager.
Cisco also joined the OneTen Coalition in 2021. What is it, and how does it create value for companies?
Aleta: OneTen is a coalition of more than 60 U.S. companies, all committed to upskilling and reskilling one million AA/Black talent, without four-year degrees, within the next ten years. The mission is to bring family-sustaining wages, long-term upward mobility, and career opportunities to this talent. OneTen is one of Cisco’s first initiatives to focus on skills-based hiring and will play an instrumental role in how we build our workforce of the future. There are millions of candidates with the skills and tenacity to be successful in today’s increasingly competitive job market; they just need a foot in the door. The OneTen partnership will allow us to play a critical role in removing barriers and building meaningful career paths for AA/Black talent.
As cited from the 2021 Cisco Purpose Report, your team is working towards a 25 percent increase in representation of employees who self-identify as AA/Black, from entry through manager level, by fiscal year 23. What steps is your team taking to make this happen?
Aleta: Since kicking off the Social Justice initiative, I have had the opportunity to partner with Karla Samdahl, Vice President of People and Communities, to develop aggressive strategies for increasing AA/Black representation at all levels of the organization. Karla is responsible for increasing representation in executive leadership.
To increase representation through senior management, we have expanded and added a number of programs and initiatives. In the university space, we focused on efforts to continue building brand recognition among students, highlighting Cisco’s market presence and amazing career opportunities. Our Executive Leadership Team has made a significant investment in helping to expand our presence at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), diversity conferences, talent expos, information sessions, and across digital platforms to provide our recruiting teams with access to top talent.
How do you envision the work landscape in ten years, after OneTen ends?
Aleta: I don’t necessarily see the program ending because I don’t see companies like Cisco taking our foot off the gas based on a time frame. Instead, I know that we are committed to continuing to lead in this space. OneTen aligns closely with Action 2, so I see this initiative as an integral part of our strategy to attract AA/Black and a full spectrum of diverse talent.
What advice do you have for underrepresented employees?
Aleta: Bring your whole self to work and always give 110%. Lean into new opportunities, even if you don’t feel that you check all of the boxes for a particular project or role. Envision where you want to go, then craft a plan to get there with a focus on filling any skills gaps. And lastly, find mentors and sponsors to guide and support you along the way.
Sponsors are very essential to career growth. They are that “voice” that speaks up for you when you’re not in the room. You might not always know who they are, which is why you should always bring your best self to work, so you’ll stand out. The first time your name comes up, you may not get the opportunity. However, if your name comes up often enough, at some point you’ll be the frontrunner.
Can you tell me something about yourself that other people might not know?
Aleta: I have a lot of passion for what I do and feel blessed to work at Cisco, where I have leaders who believe in me and continue to create pathways to opportunities for me to further pursue that passion.
Outside of work, I love to write and travel. My best day is spent at the beach, and I love looking out over the horizon and seeing that next adventure.
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